Copyright in the Classroom

This is a continuation of Friday’s post on intellectual property. Today I’m going to talk about different aspects of copyright and how they relate to classroom materials. Let’s start with licenses.

Standard copyright is the most restrictive intellectual property license you can get for copyrightable materials. There are a few common licenses that are more permissive: Creative Commons and the GNU GPL and FDL are the most common. (If you haven’t seen the FDL before, many of Wikipedia’s images are licensed that way, and its text is dual-licensed under CC and FDL.) The most permissive thing you can see is something released into the public domain.

Some folks confuse “public domain” and “fair use.” These are not synonyms; they’re not even particularly related to each other. “Public domain” means that something is not protected by copyright: free for anyone to use for any reason at all, in any way. “Fair use” is when someone uses a work that is under copyright, but in a legal manner. If you want to take advantage of someone else’s copyrighted work, you can do it, under certain guidelines. Note: not laws, guidelines. This stuff is all suggestion and case law, with very little hard legislation.

There are a few major considerations for fair use:

  1. What am you copying from? This is perhaps the least important consideration – only the most historically important or purely factual items will be exempt here.
  2. What are you making? Is it for educational use? For non-profit use? Is it a parody? This is not a sufficient condition on its own, but it helps. Let me repeat that: educational, non-profit use is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. It helps.
  3. Is what you’re doing transformative? That is, are you turning the original work into something with a different purpose? Placing a clip from someone’s amusing YouTube video into your educational video is more likely to be ok than putting it into a video intended for entertainment. The reverse is also true – making an amusing remix of PBS Nova clips is more likely to be legal than sticking clips from Nova into your own educational video.
  4. Are you harming the ability of the original copyright-holder to make money off their work? For instance, if I took someone’s textbook, rewrote it better, and released it, I would have hurt their ability to sell their book even if mine is free. This is probably the biggest consideration. (There are also trademark and “derivative work” issues in this example, but those are separate issues.)
  5. How much are you using? Did you copy an entire chapter from someone’s novel to add to your textbook? That’s probably not going to fly.

Now, all of that is fairly general. If you’re a teacher, and you’re wondering whether you can use something in class, there’s a special protection for that. If what you’re doing is the one-time, spontaneous use of a particular resource, that’s fine for a teacher in a classroom. This is designed for the day when you say, “Oh my god, this passage will be perfect for my history class in half an hour! I’m going to make copies for my students!” If you planned ahead for that one-time copy? That’s not spontaneous. If you use it again next year? That’s not one-time. I haven’t seen any word on how this guideline applies to online education, but my guess is “badly,” since online education resources are stored in perpetuity.

I’ve seen some guidelines that list a certain number of lines of poetry, a certain number of minutes of audio, a certain number of words that you can excerpt – those are wrong. I’m not sure where they come from, but all the more reputable sources I’ve seen say that there are no solid numbers that will keep you in the clear.

As far as student use goes, that depends. Students creating works for their classroom teacher alone would probably fall under “private use,” and thus would be more of a fit topic for classroom and school policies than for law. However, if you’re creating works for public  consumption, just because you happen to be a student doesn’t give you any special protection.

It’s weird that all this is something teachers have to know about, but it’s not going to get less important anytime soon.



Fair use and classroom examples from the US Library of Congress – probably the best resource for classroom teachers.

Copyright law at the US Copyright Office

Fair Use guidelines at the Center for Social Media

NASA’s images are generally not under copyright. This is also true of most other government agencies. The rationale? The public already paid for this; they don’t have to pay to use it again.

Morguefile is my favorite resource for nearly-public-domain images.

There are whole blogs about this; here’s one: Copyright on Campus


If you have any other resources that you like, feel free to list them in the comments.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on April 16, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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